Portuguese Special Forces: Special operations and elite units in Portugal

Members of CTOE Portugal
Portuguese Military: Army Special Operations Forces (Photo: XY)

Portuguese military and Portuguese special forces have a long history of special operations and elite units. Portugal is a relatively small country of 57 300 square km and has a population of about 10 million. However, for 500 years, Portugal was a large empire with overseas territories in Oceania, Asia,  Africa, and South America. This required well-trained troops to maintain its sovereignty.

Introduction

Portugal is also a member of NATO. Though the empire has been gone since the ’70s, some of the Portuguese special forces units formed for the wars in the ’60s and ’70s remain essential parts of the Portuguese Armed Forces.

Army Commandos

The best known of these units is probably the Army Commandos, which was originally formed in 1962 to perform special operations in Portuguese colonies. Army Commandos were best known for counterinsurgency operations in Africa. Portuguese Commandos proved very effective during the fighting in Mozambique and Angola, but after the end of the colonial conflicts, the Commandos were merged with the Portuguese airborne force.

Portuguese Special Forcess: Portuguese Army Special Operations Forces Land Task Unit with SCAR L and Minimi 556
Portuguese Special Forces: Portuguese Army Special Operations Forces Land Task Unit with SCAR L and Minimi 556 (Photo: XY)

However, the Commandos were reactivated in 2002 as an independent Commando Battalion with two Commando Companies and a Training Company. In 2005, Commandos were deployed to Afghanistan. An additional Commando Company was also authorized.

As with many elite units, Commando training emphasizes psychological and physical toughness, namely the ability to keep going despite hardships. Only about 20 percent of trainees pass the selection course. Once again, as with many elite training courses, the Commandos are kept unsure of what they will be required to do next.

This is intended to develop their ability to adjust to unforeseen circumstances in combat quickly. Among the primary missions of the Commandos today are long-range surveillance and intelligence gathering, though they are also trained for direct-action missions and counterinsurgency. Commandos wear red berets.

Rapid Reaction Brigade

The Commandos are part of the Portuguese Brigada de Reaccao Rapida (Rapid Reaction Brigade). Also part of this brigade is the Portuguese Airborne battalions, though they retain the designations of former regiments—the 3rd Cavalry Regiment (Recon) and the 10th and 15th Parachute Infantry Regiments. Rapid Reaction Brigade is considered as one of the major Portuguese special forces units.

The 15th Infantry Regiment is one of the oldest units in the Portuguese Army, having been established in 1641. The 15th Airborne Infantry acts as the Portuguese Parachute Troops School cadre. Before 1993, Portuguese paratroopers had been part of the Air Force and had seen many actions in colonial wars in Africa as Paratrooper Hunter Battalions.

Since the current airborne forces are structured more as a heavier airborne force than when with the Air Force, the unit has added some specialist battalions incorporating an anti-tank company, a heavy mortar company, a services and support group, a field artillery group, an engineering company, an anti-aircraft artillery battery, and a helicopter support group. There is also a War Dogs Center and a Pathfinder Company. Paratroopers wear green berets.

“Though the colonial empire is gone, some of the elite units formed for service in the colonies remain as important parts of the Portuguese armed forces.”

The Pathfinder Company is considered an elite within the parachute forces. In addition to carrying out reconnaissance of landing zones, the Pathfinders can also set up combat air control in forwarding locations. Though not their primary mission, the Pathfinders are also trained to carry out limited direct-action or recon missions.

Also part of the Rapid Reaction Brigade are members of the Portuguese CTOE (Special Operations Troop Center). The CTOE has the mission of training Portuguese troops in counterterrorism and unconventional warfare. Part of the CTOE is a special operations unit designated the DOE, which has long-range recon missions, raids against enemy command and control, destruction of enemy air defenses and radar stations, and prisoner-recovery missions.

The DOE is trained for airborne, heliborne, small boats, and other types of insertions. The unit is often equated with the U.S. Army Rangers. Elements of the CTOE have been deployed to Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Among specialized training offered by the CTOE are sniping, psychological warfare, mountaineering, and various others.

The CTOE operator can also attend other courses, including combat diving, forward air controller, combat medic, combat communications, demolitions, NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical), intelligence gathering, static line, and free-fall parachuting, and small boat handling. The CTOE operators also attend foreign courses in the U.S., UK, Germany, Spain, Norway, and Brazil. These include the German LRRP School, Norwegian cold-weather training, and Brazilian jungle warfare training.

Navy & Airborne

A small special warfare unit within the Portuguese Navy is the DAE (Destacamento de Acoes Especiais). Its missions include beach recon, combat search and rescue (CSAR), maritime anti-terrorism (MAT), demolitions against enemy ships and installations, raids across the beach, and other special operations. Those undergoing selection for the DAE first complete combat diving and underwater demolition training.

After successfully completing that phase, they receive training in escape and evasion, high-speed driving, mountaineering, small-unit tactics, and parachuting. They also learn English if they do not already speak it. The unit has a strength of approximately 60 and comprises a command unit and four 10-man combat teams.

Among units with which the DAE trains are the U.S. Navy DEVGRU, British SBS, French Commandos Marine, Spanish UOE, and Brazilian GRUMEC. The DAE unit has been deployed to Angola, Zaire, Guinea-Bissau, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia.

Though airborne forces are no longer part of the Portuguese Air Force, the Air Force does retain a small special operations unit—the UPF (Unidade de Protecao da Forca). Its missions include protection of Portuguese air bases, VIP protection, and CSAR. UPF operators have trained with U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen for the latter mission.

More Elite Units

The Portuguese Marines, the Corpo de Fuzileiros, have a long and distinguished history as an elite Portuguese special forces unit; they can trace its history to 1618. The Fuzileiros have the missions of amphibious warfare, coastal reconnaissance and raiding, guerrilla and unconventional warfare, maritime interdiction, and combat boarding.

In most countries, the training of Marines is rigorous, but that of the Fuzileiros is among the world’s most challenging, lasting 42 weeks with an average of only 25 percent completing the training and earning the dark blue beret. They march long distances, complete challenging obstacle courses, learn to rappel and free climb, train with small boats and learn demolitions. They also spend a lot of time training for close-combat situations with weapons, blades, and hand-to-hand.

The Fuzileiros consist of two Marine Battalions and a Fire Support Company, a Transport Support Company, and a Naval Police Unit. The DAE special operations unit is considered part of the Marine Corps. Among units with which the Fuzileiros train are the U.S. Marine Corps and the British Royal Marines.

One other unit mentioned is Portugal’s national counterterrorism unit—the GOE (Grupo de Operacoes Especials). Part of the Public Security Police, the GOE has principal responsibility for counterterrorism operations within Portugal and is also deployed for VIP protection, including motorcades and VIP countersniper missions and raids on dangerous criminal organizations.

Portuguese Special Forces: Grupo de Operações Especiais (GOE) operators during the counter-terrorism training exercise
Portuguese Special Forces: Grupo de Operações Especiais (GOE) operators during the exercise (Photo: XY)

The GOE is organized into a command element, a support unit, three Intervention Operational Groups, each with a strength of 20 to 25 operators, and one Technical Operational Group responsible for training, explosive ordnance disposal, working dogs, and use of technical surveillance devices.

Guns & Gear

Assault rifles

As can be expected, a diverse group of weapons is used with so many units. The most widely used rifle among Portuguese special forces is the HK G36, in “K,” “KE,” and “C”  configurations. Other rifles that have been used are the HK G3 and HK416 (5.56mm)/HK417 (7.62mm) and the Sig SG543. Portuguese Marines have used M4 Carbines with M203 grenade launchers.

Sniper rifles

Among the sniper rifles used by the Portuguese special forces units are the 5.56mm Sig SG550 Sniper, the 7.62mm HK PSG1/MSG90A1, Accuracy International AW rifles in .338 Lapua, 7.62mm and .50 BMG, and the .50-caliber Barrett M82 and M95.

Submachine guns and shotguns

Main submachine guns include the HK MP5 and MP5SD, the FN P90, the HK UMP, and the Uzi. Shotguns include the Franchi SPAS-12 and SPAS-15, the Benelli M3 and M4, the Remington 870, and the Mossberg 590.

Submachine gun FN P90 chambered in 5.7 mm
A shooter aiming with FN P90 submachine gun chambered in 5.7 mm caliber (Photo: Vickers)

Sidearms

Primary handguns used include the Sig Sauer P226, P228 and P2022, the Glock 17 and Glock 19, and the HK USP. Heavier weapons include the 5.56mm FN Minimi, the 7.62mm HK21E, the 7.62mm Rheinmetall M3, and the 5.56mm HK MG4.

As a long-standing member of NATO and a country with a proud military tradition, Portugal has retained many units that can carry out special missions at home or abroad. Portugal has also developed close military ties with other nations that allow its special operations units to get world-class training. Portugal’s spec-ops warriors stand ready to serve and defend.

1 comment
  1. I seem to recall someone mentioning the Portuguese Navy participating in an international exercise with the RAF, SAAF, and US Navy, involving convoy training off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, in August, 1963. I have agreed to be interviewed by a prep school senior in a Military History course. I was with Patrol Squadron 16, out of Jacksonville, Florida, at the time. Thank you.

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